Like it or not, social networking — the digital variety — has become an essential tool for local business. But it’s not easy. Online social networking involves a complex and fast-changing web of technologies, communities and strategies that even big business marketers have trouble mastering. Basically, social networking is the process of creating online relationships, conversations and connections through a wide range of social media such as blogs, networking sites (such as LinkedIn), web communities (mainly Facebook), checkin services (Foursquare), photo and video sharing services (YouTube, Flickr) and the micro-blogging site Twitter, among many others.
These sites offer local business owners high quality networking and marketing opportunities at no cost. But success means you need to know how to make social networking sites work for you. First, keep in mind that “networking” contains the word “work” for a reason. You must be strategic about your efforts in order to show results. Here are six things you can do to improve your online networking IQ:
- Focus on a few outlets. There are too many social networking sites to use them all. In some cases, blogs, Facebook groups and websites that target a specific industry or profession might be your best choice. For most local businesses, simply using Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and perhaps you own bog will be enough. Your time is valuable, so focus your efforts on three or four sites to keep the time commitment under control. Stay focused on your goals.
- Get cozy with LinkedIn: This is the biggest site focused on business and professional networking, so it’s certainly one you should be using. LinkedIn can help you create inside connections, find new marketing paratners or build your own brand. LinkedIn has dozens of features, so it’s important to become familiar with all the site has to offer. Definitely check out the various LinkedIn groups that surround your industry.
- Keep it professional: No matter what social media sites you use, your goal is to provide useful, trustworthy and credible information that elevates you and your business. Posting details of a personal or in-house nature is a waste of time, and potentially damaging. Once a connection is made, consider taking the conversation “off line” to avoid cluttering your social media space with one-to-one details of no relevance to others. If your focus is on a local market, keep it there. Quickly respond to and comments and queries you receive.
- Build your brand and position your personal expertise: Social networking is an ideal way to position yourself, your business or your brand as a leader in your field. The more specific you can get in defining your special expertise or product/service niche, the better. Carving a highly specialized niche – and always using the terms and keywords to fit – makes it easier for people to find you online. Become active in industry forums and groups and (this is critical) post thoughtful, credible comments on blog posts and Q&A sites. You might be surprised how quickly this builds your online reputation.
- Discover the power of using the search feature on Twitter. If you are selling a product and want to know if other people are Tweeting about it or to find out what your competition is doing, this it afeature you should nkow about. Type in the phrase or keywords that someone might use when searching for your business and expertise, and keep track of the search. This can be a powerful tool for creating new business.
- Use apps, widgets and shortcuts. You can’t truly leverage the power of social media without using some of the new time-saving tools. Most major sites offer helpful applications and plug-ins themselves. At Facebook, for example, go to Facebook.com/apps and click on “business” for a list of business-specific applications.